Hollywood stared at his reflection in the mirror as he tried to straighten the tie he’d just knotted. His dark brown hair was neatly combed, and his face was cleanly shaved, all ready for a night on the town.
Despite his tiredness, the chocolate brown eyes that stared back at him were clear and alert, the few tiny creases on either side a fitting testament to how much he liked to laugh, and how he could almost always be found smiling.
And, Ok, it was maybe a sign of getting older, but he’d gloss over that minor detail.
Thirty-eight wasn’t old. He was in his prime, perfectly matured and in the best shape of his life, now that he actually had a life to call his own and wasn’t answering to Uncle Sam.
He’d often been teased that he looked like Superman, and since that new guy, Henry something had taken over the role, he could see why people might think that. But let’s face it, that guy was an actor, with a few muscles he’d built up in the gym. They were hardly comparable.
Hollywood flexed his neck muscles, watching the fabric of his shirt ripple across his broad shoulders, emphasising the impressive physique that had been honed from years of hard physical activity.
He gave his tie another tug.
For some reason he always felt like he was playing dress-up, every time he put on a white shirt and silk tie. But for his first official dinner with his new team, he didn’t want to be shown up by turning up at a fancy restaurant in anything less than a sharp, custom made suit.
So, what if he liked to look like he just stepped off a GQ magazine cover? Who wouldn’t?
He wasn’t one to waste his money on a whole lot of vices, so the occasional trip to a good tailor was a luxury Hollywood could afford.
He’d only been in London for two days, most of it spent getting over his jet-lag, so he hadn’t really had any contact with his new team-mates yet. That was all going to change tonight, and he wanted to look the part.
Kellen was obviously well-known to him, the two of them having served together in the Marines for most of the last decade, and he’d occasionally met Yuri and Kris over the last few months, as Ryan Tucker, Jon Thornton and Gregor Diminov had spent days together setting up the new ‘fake’ company, Guardians International Security.
But the two other guys, Logan McDonald and Evan Williams were completely unknown to him.
According to JT, one was Scottish and the other was Welsh, but as that just meant they were both British, Hollywood wasn’t exactly sure what he was supposed to extract from that snippet of information.
There was obviously a big distinction between Scottish, Welsh and English, for JT to have thought it was necessary for him to know, but the only thing he’d figured out so far, was that it wasn’t a good idea to call either of them English.
British? Fine. English? Hell no! They were very particular about things like that.
He guessed it would be like calling him a Canadian. Nothing against Canadians, he just wasn’t one. He was from Mobile, Alabama, so there was obviously no doubt as to his nationality.
His initial confusion had actually prompted him to look up the two countries on the internet, but apart from figuring out that they were north and west of England and they each had their own capital city, he hadn’t gone any further. After all, he was going to be working with the guys, not marrying them. He figured he’d find out everything he needed to know once he met them.
Shit! Did they even speak English? Hollywood guessed that was something he probably should have checked.
He picked up his jacket and slipped it on, enjoying the feel of the cloth as it sat perfectly on his broad shoulders. The steel grey fabric had just the touch of shimmer to it, which set off his dark hair and tanned skin beautifully.
Not that he was a vain man. He didn’t need to be. His good looks were effortless, and much appreciated by the women he came into contact with.
Still, he liked to see the heads turn and the eyes follow his progress as he walked through a room.
The alarm on his phone sounded, letting him know he needed to be downstairs in five minutes, where a car would be waiting to take him to the restaurant.
Hollywood picked up his room key, pocketed his phone and opened the door, heading towards the elevator.
He wasn’t the sort of person to worry or fret about new situations or meeting new people. But he was in a new country, with a new team, and not entirely clear as to what their job would entail, so tonight wasn’t just going to be a meet and greet, but something of a reveal too, as JT was due to give them the outline of their first operation.
That possibly accounted for the butterflies in his stomach.
As the elevator doors opened, Hollywood headed straight across the lobby without delay, and stepped out of the door onto the street, only to pull up short.
Kellen was waiting for him at the kerbside, leaning against a very shiny new Range Rover. No wonder the guy was grinning his ass off!
“Damn, if I’d thought they’d fix me up with some fancy wheels like that, I’d have flown in a week earlier as well.” He stepped towards his friend. “My mom’s sixtieth birthday wasn’t that important.”
Kellen’s grin was as big as he’d seen it.
“This, my friend, is our new ‘official’ vehicle.” He ran his hand over the glossy black paintwork. “Wait until you see all the additional toys they’ve had fitted.”
“Seriously?” Hollywood laughed. “What sort of operation are we going on?”
“No idea.” Kellen shrugged. “But if it’s gonna be a first-class ride, let’s face it… who cares?”
Hollywood held his hand out for the keys, but Kellen just laughed.
“Not a fucking chance, my friend.” He smiled broadly. “I’ve seen the way you drive way too many times to trust you with a vehicle as fine as this one. Besides, there are so many speed cameras around London you’d probably have to kiss goodbye to your license by the time we got to the restaurant. I don’t think picking up a dozen speeding fines on your first official engagement would make a very good impression on our new employers.”
Hollywood figured Kellen was right, much as it pained him to admit it, so he wandered around to the other side of the vehicle.
“Do you even know how to drive on the wrong side of the road?” He asked with a grin.
Kellen climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Only one way to find out.” He chuckled as Hollywood carefully strapped himself in.
As it turned out, they made it to the restaurant in one piece, although in twice the time it would have taken Hollywood to get there.
“Do you always drive like my mom’s Aunt Cybil?” He asked as Kellen pulled into a parking lot.
Kellen looked around with a puzzled expression.
“Now, was Aunt Cybil the one who eloped with the heir to the throne of some pissant European kingdom?” He wondered. “Or was Cybil the burlesque dancer who was seduced by that famous film star?”
Hollywood grinned. Kellen had heard all his stories about his mother’s sisters so many times, the guy probably felt they must be related by now.
“Neither. Aunt Vivienne ran away with the Italian Count of somewhere or other, so, hardly a pissant European kingdom.” He chuckled. “It was Aunt Mimi who was the burlesque dancer seduced by the film star. Aunt Cybil was the one who lived in the convent for two years before running off and marrying a priest.”
“That’s right!” Kellen laughed. “She was the one who kept trying to convert me to Catholicism.”
“But you’re already a Catholic.” Hollywood pointed out.
“You know that, and I know that.” Kellen snorted. “But if you remember back to the year we all visited your mom’s place on the way to that fishing trip on the Gulf of Mexico, Doug Cantwell told Cybil that I was a godless pagan, and she decided it was her duty to convert me to the true path.”
Hollywood could imagine Cybil on a mission. Since Uncle Derek passed away, Cybil loved nothing more than a cause to fight for, so converting Kellen to the true faith would have been like a mission from God himself.
He followed Kellen around the car and headed to the door of the restaurant. The place was fancier than most places he’d ever been in, and as they walked through the door, he spotted a sign on the entrance board directing the ‘Guardians Security party’ upstairs to a private room.
He glanced at Kellen who grinned and pulled a face. Hollywood obviously wasn’t the only one who was impressed.
They reached the top of the stairs and discovered there was just a single door in front of them, standing ajar. Kellen stepped forward and pushed the door further open, to find JT, Tuck and the rest of their colleagues already congregated.
Hollywood wasn’t concerned that the room was full already, but he did wonder who the rest of the people were, as many of the seats at the table were occupied by people he didn’t recognize.
As he stepped into the room, his eyes immediately scanned the occupants, looking for familiar faces.
He recognised quite a few of the men, but there were still a few guys he didn’t know. There were also a few women present he didn’t recognise, which was a surprise, as he hadn’t expected to see any females here tonight besides Hannah Simons.
Hollywood waited to see which of the ladies turned their heads to glance his way, feeling just a touch peeved when none of them did.
In his thirty-eight years, he’d rarely walked into a room and not attracted the attention of at least one woman, so this was really not good for his ego.
“Hollywood? Kellen? Over here.” JT called them over to where he and Tuck were sitting together at the top of the table, and Hollywood was glad for the distraction that allowed him to walk across the room without paying any more attention to his surroundings.
Two seats were left empty to JT’s left, and he was quite relieved to take the seat closest to Tuck, so he would have a couple of familiar figures to talk to.
“Got over the jet-lag yet?” Tuck grinned at him.
Hollywood shook his head.
“Not really.” He admitted. “I didn’t get to sleep until five this morning and had to make myself get up at seven, just so I can start to get my body clock right.”
“That’s probably the best way.” JT conceded. “I travel back and forth regularly, but if I stay in Philly longer than a couple of days, it takes a day or two when I come back to London to get back into a regular sleep pattern.”
Hollywood glanced around the table. With the exception of a couple of guys towards the opposite end of the table, almost everyone else was chatting away like old friends.
“Time to make introductions, I think.” JT stood up, clinking his knife gently against his water glass to get everyone’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen… and Danny.”
Instantly the room quietened down, all except for the grumbling from the big guy Hollywood recognised as Danny Simons, Hannah’s husband.
“On behalf of Tuck, Gregor, and myself, we’d like to welcome you all to the first gathering of the members of the Guardians. I know it’s taken us a few months to get here, and I thank you for your patience while we set everything up, but as of today, I’m pleased to confirm that we are most definitely open for business.” He grinned.
“Dodgy business!” Danny pointed out.
“Very dodgy business.” JT agreed with a smile. “But thanks to our government sponsors, it will hopefully be a very effective dodgy business when it comes to disrupting traffickers across Europe and beyond.”
There was a general rumble of approving noises, which JT let run their course before he continued.
“Before we go on, I just want to do a quick roll call of who is present, by way of an introduction to everybody, and then we can settle down to eat, drink, and try not to get too wrecked.” He grinned. “So, to my right, we have my co-directors at the Guardians, Ryan Tucker and Gregor Diminov.”
Hollywood watched the two men turn and acknowledge JT’s introduction.
“Then as we go along the table, we have Danny and Hannah Simons, and Luke and Ellen Roberts. For the benefit of our newest members, Danny and Luke are Alpha Company directors, but won’t directly be part of the Guardians. Hannah you all know, but Ellen is another essential part of the new team as our translator.” JT explained, and Hollywood watched the attractive blonde woman give a little wave, presumably to the new guys she hadn’t yet met.
“Next we have Jordan and Abbey Kenny.” JT continued. “Jordan is one of Tuck’s Stalwart team, so, again, not directly a member of the Guardians, but Abbey is the third of the talented ladies making up the Guardians’ control-room staff, thanks to her unique skill-set.”
Hollywood smiled at Abbey across the table, but it wasn’t just her natural beauty that caught his attention, or the good looking African-American man with his arm draped casually around her shoulder. It was the stunning blue eyes which were such a contrast with the obviously mixed heritage colouring, that made her beauty quite unique.
Abbey gave him a smile and a shy wave before turning her full attention back to her husband.
“Of course, it goes without saying that any of the Alpha-Stalwart family could be called upon to help out with the Guardians at any time, but for now, they’ll mostly stay in the background.” JT continued.
Hollywood glanced around the table, trying not to make it too obvious that he was comparing the ladies. In contrast to Abbey, both Ellen and Hannah were blonde, but where Hannah was like a miniature Barbie doll, Ellen was more the girl next door type. Blonde and blue eyed, and pretty as hell, she put him in mind of a schoolteacher he’d once had a thing for, back in high school.
He’d been more than a little relieved to hear that they were all married, because at least that explained why none of them had shown a hint of interest in him. Over-inflated ego, much? Pfft!
“Beyond Jordan we have Logan McDonald and Evan Williams, two of Alpha’s newest recruits from Charlie and Delta companies. We’ve kept them off the Alpha Company books ‘officially’ in readiness for the Guardians operation.” JT explained, as the two guys at the end of the table nodded in acknowledgement. They were just as big as the other British guys, Danny, and Luke, but looked about ten years younger, at around thirty or so.
Hollywood guessed that the guy with the dark copper hair might be the Scot, making the guy with the wavy dark hair the Welsh guy.
“And finally, we have Kris and Yuri Bellikov. They come to us from Gregor’s company, and will be absolutely vital to us on the ground thanks to their ability to speak Russian.”
Hollywood leaned back so he could see the men around the back of Kellen. They were similar in looks, with shaved heads and packed with muscle, and both looked pretty useful if you needed someone to back you up in a bar fight.
“And last, but by no means least, straight from the US Marine Corps, we have Hollywood, AKA Don Hillwood, and Kellen Davis, courtesy of Tuck’s Stalwart team, who have very kindly loaned them to us.” JT smiled.
Hollywood nodded a greeting to his new comrades.
He watched the waiters come around the table, pouring glasses of champagne, and saw JT pick up his glass, as he stood at the head of the table.
“I’d like to propose a toast.” He waited for everyone to stand up and raise a glass. “To the success of the Guardians, and to the people whose lives will be improved and saved, every time we win a battle. And to finally winning the war!”
“Winning the war!” The team echoed, and Hollywood felt a shudder of anticipation somewhere deep in his chest.
His whole career in the Marines had been about making a difference, and he’d never imagined being able to find a job afterwards that would ever give him the same sense of purpose.
Looking around the room at the men and women of his new unit, Hollywood had a really good feeling.
Someone might think he was mad, putting his life on the line to save a bunch of strangers, or stop a drugs or arms shipment, but at the end of the day, it was what he was trained to do.
All he knew for certain was that he was really looking forward to the next phase of his adult life, and if it gave him the same level of satisfaction as the first phase, he would be a very happy man indeed.